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Memo: There is more than one way to build a Patriots team

Related: What to make of the Patriots’ early free agency spending spree

NFL: AFC Wild Card Round-Baltimore Ravens at Tennessee Titans Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

‘Twas the day after Daylight Savings Time, and most of us were using all our motivation to leave the cozy comfort of bed and sign in on our laptops for yet another Monday morning of pandemic working from home in our PJs.

The New England Patriots and Bill Belichick, by comparison, woke up early, ate their Wheaties, drank their coffee, made a superfoods protein shake, and threw in an extra scoop of pre-workout for good measure.

(Editor’s Note 1: if you’ve never tried a pre-workout supplement before exercise, it makes you feel like Dave Chappelle’s Tyrone Biggums character when he says “oooooh, my blood itches!”)

You’ve seen the absolute barrage of elite free-agent “play Monopoly with real cash” signings that Belichick and the Patriots went on all day on Monday and well into Monday night and Tuesday. The offense got power-up after power-up with tight end Jonnu Smith and wide receivers Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne. The defense and special teams stole all kinds of defensive talent from hated AFC rivals, like linebacker Matthew Judon, defensive tackles Davon Godchaux and Henry Anderson, and defensive back Jalen Mills (whose role here is kinda unclear right now, but whatever).

Calling Monday’s signings a “splash” doesn’t even do the old sports cliche justice. It was more like, given the Patriots’ pedigree, when you’re playing Risk or Stratego or something, and you’ve accumulated enough troops that you can just bully everyone else into submission and, therefore, victory.

So, perhaps, predictably, some people were upset.

Not normal people, of course. The people whose job it is to deliver the takes, piping-hot. You probably saw at least one of these while we were all “working” on Monday:

Editor’s Note 2: (that last one is not relevant to our discussion, but I did find it really, really funny. Nobody owns height jokes like Field Yates and Mike Reiss.)

The point here isn’t to dunk on these people specifically, because, like a former Deadspin writer memorably put it, “writing about other writers isn’t writing”. The point is to point a BFG-9000 at the idea that the only way that the post-Tom Brady Patriots can get back to contender status is to do things the way they’ve done ‘em since Bill got to town when we were all still listening to Hybrid Theory and Stankonia.

You know all the conventional wisdom about how the Patriots build a championship squad. Let’s run ‘em down:

  • Sit out the first day of free agency. Let impulsive idiot teams pay free agents twice the going rate for 60% of the production.
  • Zig when everyone else zags. Example: signing a bunch of ginormous nose tackles in the OG dynasty era when most teams valued 4-3 D-line players more.
  • Find a few scrap-heap wide receiver signings, introduce them to The System™, and let them get a few 1,000 yard seasons, then let them walk and reap the compensatory picks.
  • Actually, just let guys walk and reap comp picks, in general
  • Don’t overpay for premium positions like pass rusher and wide receiver, whether it’s homegrown talent, sexy free agents, or both.
  • To quote the great Bill Barnwell, “[Belichick] doesn’t overreact to a perceived weakness, like New England’s lack of a downfield receiver”.
  • Invest in the trenches (which, if we’re putting all the cards on the table, is a personal vice of mine), and let the skill positions and secondary figure themselves out.

You get the idea. You’ve heard all these at some point or another when the conversation comes up on how to build a “Belichick team”, or whatever euphemism people use.

Like the indomitable Michael Hurley memorably put it, though:

It’s damn hard to win a Super Bowl. To come out of the tunnel in February after six months of work as the only happy team in the NFL, you need a perfect blend of skill, smarts and luck.

And also, in the same article:

The point is that there are multiple ways to win Super Bowls. The recent trend these past two years has seen some elite corners play prominent roles in championships. But that’s not the only way. The Giants won two Super Bowls with a relentless pass rush and a mediocre secondary. The Saints won with offense, averaging 36 points per game. Many teams won with balance, some had All-Pro safeties to cover for the weak corners, and hey, that list of winning quarterbacks (Brady, Wilson, Flacco, Eli Manning, Rodgers, Brees, Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning) is not too shabby, wouldn’t you say?

In contrast to the risk of your stuff winding up on Freezing Cold Takes, the above article was written after Darrelle Revis left New England in 2015 and the sky was falling because we needed a SHUTDOWN corner. Aged like a fine wine, right?

By the same logic, and sorry if this is a Captain Obvious point to make, the 2021 NFL season, there’s still more than one way to build a team that can win enough games to make a run at a Super Bowl.

Even if you don’t happen to have the good fortune to draft Patrick Mahomes.

Not convinced? Let’s run down some notable playoff teams from 2020 and 2019 and see how they got there from a team-building perspective.

(The Washington Football Team will not be included, because they should never be a template for anything, except maybe the setting for season 2 of Ted Lasso)

2019 and 2020 Kansas City Chiefs

I’m lumping both Chiefs teams here because their approach after getting memorably bounced in the AFC Championship Game by your New England Patriots has been spiritually identical in both years. Identify your weaknesses, and fix them with badasses.

Or, at least guys that have the ceiling of being above replacement-level.

To shore up a defense that frankly got embarrassed after that game, in 2019 the Chiefs signed the objectively awesome and yet somehow still underrated Tyrann Mathieu to play whatever secondary position they needed him to, and then also added cornerback Bashaud Breeland, who’s still on the team, and attempted to give their pass rush some muscle with DE Alex Okafor. Oh, and speaking of pass-rush muscle, they shipped first- and second-round picks to Seattle for first-round defensive end Frank Clark. Then they promptly gave him a hundred million dollars.

Then in 2020, fresh off their first Super Bowl ring since the AFL-NFL Championship was a thing, they focused their checkbook on running it back; defensive tackle Chris Jones got himself the bag, and they re-signed role-players like FB Anthony Sherman and DT Mike Pennel. If it ain’t broke.....

2020 Buffalo Bills

There’s a whole generation of Patriots fans who have not seen a good Buffalo Bills team in their lifetime. How’d our South Canadian friends pull off their AFC Championship Game appearance this past season?

Obviously, Josh Allen’s meteoric improvement helps, but the other answer to how they got so good so fast is “with money”.

In 2019, the Bills added a duo of Patriots Nation wide receiver crushes in Cole Beasley and John Brown on reasonable, but not-at-all-cheap deals, and then really supercharged the offense in 2020 with arguably the best deep threat in football by trading a pretty penny for Stefon Diggs. They also built a preposterously deep offensive line with a platoon of those middle-class veterans that teams like the Patriots seem to dig up annually.

The result? The NFL’s second-best offense in yards per game, and also second-best in points per game. In short, they built themselves into a wagon with a few big-brass-ones decisions and a slew of “yeah, that makes perfect sense” ones.

2019 and 2020 Green Bay Packers

Easy. Just piss off Aaron Rodgers by drafting his replacement.

In all seriousness, though, the Packers found themselves in a surprisingly similar situation to the 2020 Patriots, although with a much, much higher floor. They had to admit that the way they’ve always done things wasn’t working quite as well as it used to, and if they wanted to get back to the Super Bowl, it was evolve or die.

So in the 2019 offseason, like everyone else on this list, they got aggressive, which is doubly notable for them due to Green Bay’s longstanding preference for developing and paying their own guys instead of throwing cash at free agents.

This time, they double-dipped to power up their pass rush with Zadarius Smith and Preston Smith, and hired Adrian Amos to hold down the back end at safety. Sure, they got absolutely wrecked by the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship, but in 2020, beefing up the defense would pay off in spades. They finished the 2020 season tied for eighth in the league in sacks, and while they weren’t a top defense in really any category like yards or points allowed, they finished either barely inside the top-10 or just outside of it in most of them.

Throw in an improved, more confident offense in its second year with head coach Matt Lefleur, and boom, you’re a few plays away from facing the Chiefs in the Super Bowl.

2019 and 2020 Tennessee Titans

Our last case study and we’re lumping these two teams together as well. The 2019 squad was really the catalyst for the Titans’ recent newfound relevance as one of the most formidable offenses in football. Hence the whole “give everyone more money and run it back” approach in 2020.

We’re quite familiar with QB Ryan Tannehill around these parts, but it’s a safe bet that nobody saw him being quite the gunslinging BAMF he turned into when he replaced a struggling Marcus Mariota in mid-2019.

That 2019 offseason, though, the Titans made a slew of non-quarterback moves that’d set the table for the phoenix-rising that nobody saw coming. They gave All-Pro guard Roger Saffold the bag, paying him $44 million on a four-year deal. They re-signed hard-hitting safety Kenny Vaccaro for another four years and $26 million. And of course, that’s after they snagged Patriots alumni Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler on huge deals to hold down the cornerback positions.

This is also kind of cheating, but they also rolled the dice on a very Patriots-like prospect in the draft — defensive tackle Jeffrey Simmons, who pretty much everyone agreed would be an easy top-10 pick if he hadn’t torn his ACL. Instead, he fell all the way to 19th, where the Titans were more than happy to bet on his talent and upside.

You know how the rest of that season went. They famously beat New England in what ended up being Tom Brady’s last game as a Patriot, and even more impressively, found a way to not just defeat the Baltimore Ravens, they played tetherball with them to the tune of a 28-12 victory. They ended up succumbing to the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game, but, with the Chiefs rolling like they were, it’s a pretty safe bet that any AFC team that made the conference championship was going to fall into that Batman Begins “You’re practice” category.

That’s probably enough. If you’re actually still reading, you get the idea.

Big moves like this don’t show that Bill Belichick and Patriots are desperate or pissed, although the latter certainly might be true. It’s not like this team was 3-13 in 2020, no matter how much games like the 49ers and the Rams may have felt like it.

Belichick took a look at what the 2020 team did well, what it needed to get better at (which, to be fair, was most things), and saw that this offseason was not only one where he had money to burn, but also that difference-maker free agents would be plentiful and most teams wouldn’t have the cash to even play at the high society table. So he did what he always does: find the one unblockable move in Mortal Kombat, and spam that move over and over again until victory is in the bag.

And not only that, Bill also recognized that going into free agency like he usually does, where you can find value for complimentary pieces and guys that had worn out their welcome elsewhere, just wasn’t going to cut the mustard this time around. That’s no small achievement. Bill’s always quick to admit that he makes a lot of mistakes, perhaps most famously in the 2014 Do Your Job documentary, but to both recognize what went wrong in the post-Brady era and recognize that the 2021 offseason may well be a unique opportunity to hit a Mario Kart shortcut that skips half the track is just another example of what makes Belichick Belichick.

Know the situation, know what your options are, and execute the plan. Even if that plan involves admitting, “Yeah, we really underachieved last year, so now we’re stacking the deck, cause that s--t was unacceptable around here”.

Free agency bonanzas frequently get laughed off, especially in New England, as desperate, dumb teams like the Jets trying to buy their way back into the playoffs. And maybe this will end that way too. It also could, like the teams we looked at above, be what supercharges your team from “eh, they’re competitive most weeks, but nobody’s scared of ‘em” to that team that nobody wants a piece of, regular season, playoffs, or otherwise.

Or, I guess, that team that everyone wants a piece of, because like New England was for so long, you’re the final boss that anyone who wants a Super Bowl ring has to beat.